Many years ago in Oregon I was reading about someone who visited one of the American deserts and so fell in love they moved there and never left, and I thought “How do you fall in love with sand?” I wonder how much of my photography in the desert is a love letter to that past self, gently poking fun at his complete and utter ignorance of the desert but also deeply thankful that when it became apparent he was going to have to leave the place he never wanted to leave, he kept an open mind and found not just a new home but a new love.
This trail is in not just my favorite part of the preserve but one of my favorite places anywhere. In December 2021 I was taking environmental portraits of phainopepla and as sometimes happens, took my favorite late in the day while hiking out. I saw the male atop a crucifixion thorn in front of the Four Peaks, the late light starting to cloak them in their purple mountains majesty, near an old saguaro replete with woodpecker holes, and couldn’t resist a quick shot before continuing towards my exit.
I dubbed this mushroom The Artists’ Studio when I realized a prolific pair of artists was painting the rock face. Bear and I had seen both owls on our walk earlier in the afternoon but I came back out with my biggest telephoto hoping for a close-up near sunset and only saw the one. I got those pictures but my favorites were the environmental portraits I took with the Nikon Z 24-200mm lens, perhaps not surprising since I’ve been craving these types of images for a while now.
This first image is my favorite of the two, the second was taken a few minutes later and further up the trail so I could include the mountains in the background. The lighting is more direct here and the light getting much softer, often a look I prefer, but in this case while I like both I prefer the shadows from the side-lighting of the first picture.
My week off from work brought heavy clouds and gentle rains, reminding me of lost worlds. Looking out to the obscured mountain peaks, of ancient times when land emerged from the sea. Walking Bear in the mist and rain, of walking Ellie in the damp Portland winters, toweling her off when we got home. The rain caught Bear and I but once on our long walks, I stayed dry since I still have all my rain gear, and Bear, like Ellie before him, was as happy in the wet as the dry.
Sunrise at the Basalt Ridge Overlook in the summer of 2021.
I love that we can see mountains from our backyard. Most days anyway, on this rainy day in December I had to take it mostly on faith they were still there.
In late July a mix of sand and rain blows towards Tom’s Thumb and the McDowell Mountains, meaning there was only one place you’d find Trixie: under the covers of our bed, hiding until the monsoon passes. The second picture was taken at sunset a few days later in more cat-friendly weather. With the arrival of October she’s safe for another year, as the winter rains tend to be a lot more gentle.
A quiet morning in December, looking north to Granite Mountain. The large depression was created decades ago when the giant lizard who had been resting beneath the mountain finally woke, shaking off its slumber and heading west to California and the Pacific Ocean. It was seen swimming in the direction of Tokyo but I don’t know what happened to it after that, hope it had a good life.
Looking south towards Phoenix near sunset on the Go John Trail.
After taking the previous woodpecker picture I looked at the skies and thought I might be able to frame one of my favorite saguaros against the pink clouds of sunset. The problem was the saguaro was on the opposite side of the hill and to get to it I had to drop back down past the basketball courts and go up the other side of the trail. A part of me wanted to call it a night as the light was not likely to last that long but a part of me decided to try it, and that part won out and had me arriving just as the pink skies began to fade. I took a quick shot of the fading beauty, of the battered old giant with broken arms that sheltered so many birds during its long life, of the day fading into night.
On the way over I took a quick shot in a different direction of the orange clouds above the city and mountains of Scottsdale. I wanted to include more of the city, and could have if I climbed the hill, but I couldn’t do that and get to the saguaro, choices had to be made. And that’s just fine, the purpose of these sketches is to remind me in years to come of how fortunate we were that when the time came to leave the home we didn’t want to leave, we ended up in another land of wonders. And maybe to become actual sketches as I’d like to learn to draw (and maybe paint), but for now the camera will do.
With the light truly gone I made the short trip back to the parking lot where my hatchback awaited for the short drive home. It’s been everything I hoped for, a lovely little commuter car that is also easy to drive to the local trailheads and which has made the intense summers so much more tolerable (dare I say enjoyable? A part of me misses the summer).
Since we moved to Arizona I’ve been fascinated by the moment when light first sweeps across the desert or, as in this case, the light suddenly falls away. There was a particular cactus I wanted to photograph at last light but I was delayed watching a sparrow and a family of hawks. I had to laugh as I hurried down the wide trail, seeing something I wanted to photograph and the light disappearing before I could get the camera to my eye. I was able to get this environmental portrait of a phainopepla before the light disappeared from all but the mountains, a shot that pokes gentle fun at my misunderstanding of what the desert here was like, thinking it was just sand and an occasional cactus. But also a show of gratitude that I researched the area when an opportunity appeared here at the last minute, and for a park dense with vegetation and wildlife that drew me in and didn’t let go.